In a 5-4 vote Oct. 14, the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council in Louisiana rejected a proposal to open a temporary misdemeanor jail. There were widespread concerns that authorities would target poor black, nonviolent offenders, The Advocate reports.
“We incarcerate more people than Cuba, Iran and North Korea combined, and our solution here is to put people in jail for misdemeanors, essentially traffic offenses. This is obscene,” said Metro Councilman John Delgado, according to The Advocate.
The Metro Council had supported a misdemeanor jail in 2012. Since the city cannot afford the ongoing operation of such a jail, city officials sought to open the facility for two-week periods over several months, as in the past. Supporters said it would motivate repeat violators to show up to court and to pay outstanding fines.
But this time there was strong opposition. Residents and prison-reform advocates voiced strong concerns at the public hearing. Opponents said the misdemeanor jail would be nothing more than a debtor’s prison that disproportionately affects black residents, according to WAFB-TV.
Some opponents said that the real intent is financial gain, by targeting poor people who can ill afford to pay fines for minor offenses such as violating noise ordinances.
“How is it in 2015 that everybody’s budget depends on the backs of black folks, poor folks and mentally challenged folks?” said local NAACP President Mike McClanahan, according to The Advocate.
The council’s vote comes against the backdrop of a U.S. Department of Justice report that found that officials in Ferguson, Mo., targeted black residents with fines for nonviolent offenses to fill the city’s treasury.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III denied that the misdemeanor-jail proposal targets poor people. He insisted that it is a method to compel repeat offenders to pay their fines. The city could collect an estimated $4.2 million if all violators paid their outstanding fines, fees and court costs, according to city court officials.